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Issue 11 * 10 February 2024

Balancing Mood with Food: The Connection Between Diet and Mental Health

Discover how your diet affects your emotions, especially during menopause and beyond, with insights from Harvard Nutritional Psychiatrist, Professional Chef, Nutritional Biologist, and author Dr Uma Naidoo.

Bethan Cole

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The Brain-Gut Connection: Understanding the Basics

“Most people ignore the fact that food impacts mood,” says Dr Uma Naidoo, a Harvard trained Nutritional Psychiatrist, Professional Chef, Nutritional Biologist and author of the international bestseller ‘This is Your Brain on Food’ and the upcoming ‘Calm Your Mind with Food’. “Most people are focussed on food and weight, food and diabetes or food and high blood pressure. But what they don’t know is that the gut and brain are connected. The gut and brain arise from the same cells in the human embryo. Because these organs have the same origin they are related. Because they are connected anatomically by the 10th cranial nerve – the vagus nerve.”

Dr Uma explains that the connection between the brain and gut is like a 2-way text messaging system with chemical messages travelling back and forth all day long between the brain and gut. “It’s an all-day conversation between two organs,” she continues.

Menopause and Diet: Navigating Emotional Well-being

So the food we eat and the choices we make with food impact the gut microbiome and we need to fight off inflammation in the gut. During menopause, for example, we’re going through hormonal changes which can in turn mean stress, anxiety and mood changes. ‘We need a healthier diet for menopause,” advises Dr Uma, “preferably a Mediterranean diet with lots of vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, olive oil, chickpeas and seafood. A whole foods diet.”

The Risks of Comfort Eating: Consequences of Unhealthy Choices

Of course, the temptation is, when you’re feeling low with menopause, to turn to candy bars and cake for comfort. “But if that’s what you’re eating every day it's going to make things much worse,” warns Dr Uma. “I’m not saying don’t eat cake on your birthday, but eating cake every day will lead to more inflammation in your gut and body – driving and worsening conditions such as depression and anxiety and more. If you’re eating these sorts of things every day, you’ll be developing more inflammation which will make you feel worse emotionally and the symptoms of menopause will worsen.”

Ultra-processed food including ready meals, pizza in a box and frozen dinners are also a no-no, not only due to their high sugar and salt levels but also because they include colourants, dyes, food stabilisers, thickeners and preservatives – none of which are good for the brain. “If you’re going to eat a blueberry fruit yogurt then bear in mind it can have a ton of added sugar.” Continues Dr Uma “Instead have plain yoghurt and add cinnamon and fresh whole blueberries instead.” Another no-no during menopause is processed vegetable oil, according to Dr Uma, it causes inflammation in the body and especially in the gut. “Choose extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil instead,” she says.

Boosting Mental Health: Foods to Embrace

What foods should we be eating more of for our mental health, both during and beyond menopause? “Vegetables and fruit bring fibre to the body and are good for the gut. Eat colourful veg and fruit rich in fibre and plant polyphenols,” urges Dr Uma. Secondly, fermented foods which provide live bacteria to the gut microbiome, research also shows they lower inflammation. “Things like Kimchi, Kombucha and Miso,” adds Dr Uma. Omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish like anchovies, salmon and sardines are also good. Chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts also contain them. Lastly, herbs and spices “for example turmeric with a pinch of black pepper, camomile, lavender, saffron and oregano are all worth adding to your daily diet,” reckons Dr Uma.

No-No Foods: What to Avoid for Better Mental Health

We know then, what we need more of (the above). Likewise, what should we be avoiding? “Foods that cause depression include refined sugars and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharine and sucralose. They are disruptive to the gut microbiome. Each have different – not great – effects on the body.” Dr Uma adds that stevia the natural sweetener might be okay but having 5 cups of tea a day with sweeteners in is not. Everything in moderation is the key and sugar in moderation. Sugar and sweeteners generally lead to inflammation in the body. “Bad microbes feed on sugar, thrive and cause toxic damage in the gut and damage the cell lining in the gut. This can lead to leaky gut; this is one of the ways in which it starts.”

Combatting Depression and Anxiety Through Diet

What about anxiety, another common mental health problem? How can we mitigate it? “Eating berries of different colours can help with anxiety. Berries are rich in polyphenols – blueberries, strawberries and raspberries for example. Avocado is also good food for an anti-anxiety plan,” says Dr Uma. And colourful veg has the necessary fibre and makes us feel more satiated and less anxious in turn as well. “Spikes in blood sugar,” considers Dr Uma “anxiety could be related to them. For example, eating a sugary doughnut or drinking a diet soda. Artificial sweeteners can also worsen anxiety.”

Tracking Diet and Mood: The Role of Technology

Lots of advice there from a world-renowned expert. You could also consider keeping a food diary and tracking what you eat and your resultant moods and emotions. A modern way to do this is to use an App such as MyFitnessPal the world’s number one food and nutrition app – you can log what you eat on it and how it impacts your mood.

And once you are educated about your diet – your mood will improve.